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Goodbye to 2009, Hello to 2010: Year of the Tiger

Once again hands are raised in stupefaction. How could they have missed him — meaning in this case Umar Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian bomber on that flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Why, his own father — one of the most powerful bankers in Africa — gave the US embassy in Lagos a warning! He was on the US master computer list of potential terrorists but never made it on to the watch list.

The Truthers reject the obvious answers — caution, bureaucratic inertia, buck-passing, turf fights — and say it was a plot. Obama joins Bush and Cheney in the big conspiracy. It won’t be long before David Griffin rushes out a book on the affair.

Personally, I’m not at all dismayed at evidence that intelligence gathering networks are flawed, that bureaucrats pass the buck. Hyper-efficiency in these matters indicates we have arrived at the perfect police state.

Of course there is room for common sense and elementary vigilance. In the case of the Virginia Tech killer there was plenty of evidence that Cho Seung-hui was a time bomb waiting to explode. Students talked about him as a possible shooter and refused to take classes with him. His essays so disturbed one of his teachers with their violent ravings that she arranged a secret signal in case she needed security during her tutorials.

And then was there was proof positive that the time bomb had exploded and the mass murder session began in the engineering building, the police state proved all too human in actual performance. The police cowered behind their cruisers until Cho Seung-hui finished off the last batch of his 32 victims, then killed himself. Then the police bravely rushed in and started sticking their guns in the faces of the traumatized students, screaming at them to freeze or be shot.

Major Hasan offers another bracing illustration of the human capacity to avoid unpleasant decisions, like dealing with an Army shrink who had Soldier of Islam on his visiting cards, discussed openly the ethics of armed resistance to Christian assaults on Islam and so forth.

But without the advantage of hindsight were the signs that obvious? Not really. A Serbian woman I met at a New Year’s Party says that on her way from Abu Dhabi to Seattle she passed though Amsterdam airport the same day as Abdulmutallab and security was tight and the questioning she got was pretty rigorous. The story — now canonized by conspiracists — of the well dressed man trying to finagle a passportless Abdulmutallab onto the plane seems to be without foundation.

Now there’s an avalanche of punditry about Britain’s Islamic minority as the petrie dish in which toxic cultures of militant Islam flourish and multiply. At this rate they’ll soon be deploying the Delta Force in Birmingham and bombing mosques across the Midlands with drones.

The real petrie dish is US national policy, abetted by junior partners in the UK, France and Germany: widening attacks on Afghanistan, an unfolding record of torturing captives to death since 2001, full support for Israel’s onslaughts on Palestinians and calculated mass murder. What does a radical imam in the UK or Yemen have to offer as incitement to attack America that is as vividly persuasive as Obama and Hillary Clinton’s cheerleading for Israel or the posture of the US Congress?

So many ghosts crowded the inauguration dais that it’s not surprising Chief Justice Roberts flubbed his lines and had to be corrected by the man he was swearing in. Over there on the right! That jowly fellow with the 5 o’clock shadow and the long upsweeping nose. It’s Richard Nixon on January 20, 1973. He’d swept every state in the union in November’s election, except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

Listen to him: “As we meet here today, we stand on the threshold of a new era of peace in the world.” Yet American B-52s were still bombing Cambodia, as they had virtually throughout his administration. One-and-a-half years later he resigned, rather than face impeachment.

Why look! Nixon’s smiling. He’s just heard Obama call for “a new era of responsibility.” He’s remembering more lines from his second inaugural in ’73: “A person can be expected to act responsibly only if he has responsibility. This is human nature. So let us encourage individuals at home and nations abroad to do so.”

Obama offered a mild version of blood-sweat-and-tears. “We understand that greatness is never a given,” he said. “It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.” The word “responsibility” from those set in authority over us usually means compulsory belt tightening and onslaughts on Social Security and Medicare, which Obama more or less promised the Washington Post five days before the Inauguration that he is eager to undertake.

It’s an invariable rule of inaugurals that at some point during the interminable proceedings some tv anchor will marvel out loud at the peaceful nature of the transition of power. So it was this time. More than one commentator seemed stunned at the fact that Obama had not been forced to purchase the loyalty of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to furnish him shock troops to winkle Bush and Cheney out of the bunker at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Each time a new president strides forth, flourishing his inaugural menu of change, one feels the same gloom at these quadrennial displays of leader-lust. Eight years of complaining about George Bush’s arrogation of unconstitutional powers under the bizarre doctrine of the “unitary executive” and here we have the national audience enthusiastically applauding yet another incoming president rattling off the I-will-do’s as though there was no US Congress and he was Augustus Caesar.

It’s not rocket science to figure where Obama is headed. Just look at his picks: Emanuel as chief of staff, Summers and Geithner as his economic executives.

Predictably enough Obama has stood by Geithner. “I have complete confidence in Tim Geithner and my entire economic team,” he said last March. In the president’s opinion, Geithner “is making all the right moves.” He’ll say the same thing right until Geithner makes his terminal right move through the hangman’s trap door.

Obama wouldn’t be the first president to realize that it does no harm to have public odium pleasantly deflected onto a subordinate. Year after year George Bush watched the mud getting hurled at Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. It was the late great historian Walter Karp who argued that the most politically adept of all Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, conceived his notorious court-packing proposal — up to six new Justices on the Supreme Court — to deflect attention from serious difficulties on other fronts. So Geithner gets pelted with mouldy cabbages, while Obama — entirely responsible for the basic economic strategy of bailing out the banks rather than taking them over — charms the nation.

A friend down the coast here in California called recently to say that her mother, 95, had fallen, cracked her ribs, got a cough and told her daughters, “That’s it. I’m checking out.” She’s given up eating. I remembered all the arguments I’d had down the years with the old lady — a perennial optimist about Democrats when it came to assessing the likelihood that Carter or Clinton or Obama would ever actually serve up the progressive banquets they’d pledged on the campaign trail.

“Tell your mother that at least she won’t have to put up with me saying ‘I told you so, about Obama.’” Her daughter gave a deep, sad sigh. She too has been a loyal liberal Democrat all her life and now, she said, Obama’s breaking her heart. So many high hopes, and there’s a man accepting the Peace Prize with one hand, while signing deployment orders with the other, sending 30,000 more young soldiers to Afghanistan.

Imagine having one’s foot on the lip of the great abyss, dimly hearing the radio in the kitchen playing snatches of the appalling drivel served up by Obama in Oslo. “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.”

McCain loves the speech. Sarah Palin loves the speech. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s Oslo address was a Republican speech. When it comes to invoking “just wars” Republican presidents can go through the motions, but they haven’t got their hearts in it. Who needs to talk about justice as you drop high explosive and scrawl Death to Ragheads on the side of the bombs? When you want a just war, whistle up a Democrat who can talk with a straight face about installing democracy in the Balkans. After eight years of Bushian crudities the Empire needed an upgrade in its salespitch, which is why we have Obama. Back at the time of the medieval crusades, the Western kings used to take Holy Communion from their Archbishops before heading east to battle Islam and scour the land for booty. I thought the ceremony in that austere hall in Oslo was a straight lineal descent — as Obama accepted his wafer, in the form of the prize — in this modern age a substantial check — and then pledged his holy war.

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

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